Building ELL Literacy through Argument-Driven Activities

Helping students explore their opinions and develop vocabulary

In the Association for Middle Level Education’s This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010), there is an expressed commitment to helping young adolescents become successful, responsible, global citizens. English language learners (ELLs) need meaningful opportunities to explore topics of global concern, though often, teachers do not know how to support and incorporate these learners as they move into more complex language-based tasks. Many ELLs struggle to support an argument or convey their opinions on issues. However, when provided with opportunities to construct argument, ELLs can develop essential content area literacy skills emphasized in state standards. One way to address this issue of ELL literacy is through the use of argument-driven activities.

This article discusses practical ways teachers can address ELL literacy issues by providing students opportunities to articulate their opinions. A brief overview of best practices for ELLs is provided, along with two activities about global issues that help students construct their arguments.

A Brief Overview of Best Practices for ELLs

Teachers are tasked with supporting ELLs’ ability to develop an argument. ELLs work under a dual load. They are learning a new language and content and skills in a language they have not yet mastered. Like other students, they are still in the process of learning the necessary components of constructing an argument and the skills required to build and support their claims with evidence. Being able to argue and support a claim with valid points is a good indicator of control over a language. Our job as middle level teachers is to provide all students with the tools to develop their arguments. In the next sections, two activities are provided that allow ELLs to construct their own arguments about public issues.

Laying the Foundation with Academic Language

Supporting and developing a foundational understanding is important for ELLs. Short and colleagues (2018) stress that certain considerations should be made during the design and delivery stages of instruction. Teachers must consider how and why particular language and vocabulary is used. With this activity, students review the language of observation, analysis, and interpretation along with vocabulary critical to being able to analyze evidence, demonstrate understanding, and argue their own opinions (i.e., academic and lesson vocabulary). These types of language supports provide ELLs with key words and model language/structure, promote independence, and help them remember connections among words and concepts. As each chart is discussed, students should be directed to find the equivalent phrase or vocabulary in their home language.

The language of observation is the language used to describe “what we see” and what is actually there. Students are able to pull from the vocabulary listed in figure 1 to share their observations. They learn to make observations in simple, short sentences.

 Figure 1
The Language of Observation Chart

The language of analysis is the set of vocabulary used to figure out what our observations are telling us. These phrases (figure 2) help students go beyond what they simply observe. It provides them with the necessary structure to verbalize the connections they made from their observations.

 Figure 2
The Language of Analysis Chart

Language of interpretation is the set of phrases used to draw conclusions and articulate understandings. This chart (figure 3) provides students with the structure and opening statements that make sense of their analyses and present their conclusions in clear statements.

 Figure 3
The Language of Interpretation Chart

In addition to these language charts, the teacher reviews examples of academic vocabulary and language objectives that students will see as they continue the activities such as develop, the result of, compare/contrast, increase/decrease, interpret, predict, and draw conclusions about. Key lesson vocabulary is also identified and reviewed with students. Examples include population, statistics, region, poor/poverty, scarce, resources, starvation, shelter, safe, and dangerous. Finally, the teacher focuses on the language used in collaborative conversation. Language used in collaborative conversations consists of different phrases and prompts (see figure 4).

 Figure 4
Collaborative Conversation Chart

The benefit of this chart is that it provides ELLs with a template of phrases and responses to actively participate in dialogue.

Developing Literacy through Exploration and Argument of Global Issues

The students utilize the language charts introduced in the previous activity to produce their arguments. These charts allow them to deconstruct and reconstruct their argument. To build upon students’ content knowledge and ensure that everyone has adequate knowledge to formulate their argument, they participate in three pre-argument activities.

In the first pre-activity, the teacher starts by discussing the meaning of “population” and asks the students to list the factors that make up a population, such as race, gender, or native language. In the second pre-activity, the teacher gives the students time to independently complete the handout titled “If the World were 100 People…” Then, they watch a video produced by the 100 People Foundation titled “100 People Trailer” ( to fill in the actual statistics. The video asks viewers to imagine what the world would look like if the total global population (about seven billion people) were actually 100 people. This helps students understand major issues that people around the world face everyday.

The teacher reviews the actual statistics when the video is finished and explains that the 100 People Foundation has identified ten areas of critical global concern. In the final pre-activity, the students write an official list of the Ten Areas of Critical Global Concern. The ten issues are: water, food, transportation, health, economy, education, energy, shelter, war, and waste. Then, the teacher asks the students to choose the issue from the official list that is most important to them. Initially, students start by focusing only on one main issue. A second issue can be included once students demonstrate mastery in developing their own argument, which should include supporting details.

To start the argument activity, students select an issue that is most important to them. They spend time adequately developing their argument about the issue, including actively looking for evidence as they read. Teachers can help this process by modeling for students how to dissect texts and infer deeper meaning. The teacher provides the students with a three-paragraph essay outline and prompts them individually to help them advance through the process. Figure 5 contains prompts that can be used to help them write.

 Figure 5
Sentence Frames for Argument

This process is duplicated when students begin building an argument for a second or third issue. The teacher instructs the students to change their verbiage from “most important” to “another important” as they work on a second issue. Students create a well-built argument as their final product for one or two issues. As a class or in small groups students take turns listening to their classmates’ arguments and sharing their own. From this activity, students are able to improve both their productive and receptive language skills and demonstrate their level of mastery.


Students come to school already fluent in many discourses (e.g., argument, narration, description, exposition, and transactional). Many of these existing discourses could be used to support language learning in the classroom. Classroom strategies, such as those identified in this article, give ELL students opportunities to explore and articulate their own opinions and develop language vocabulary.


National Middle School Association [NMSA]. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Short, D., Becker, H., Cloud, N., Hellman, A. B., Levine, L. N., & Cummins, J. (2018). The 6 principles for exemplary teaching of English learners: Grades K-12. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.